These are not just critical times for the country but a defining moment for the anti-graft court as well.
Created in 1978, the Sandiganbayan handles criminal and civil cases involving graft and corrupt practices and such other offenses committed by public officers and employees.
The last time that the court handled a case of large public interest was during the time of then-President Joseph Estrada, who faced a plunder trial.
It took six years for the case to be resolved, which ended in a guilty verdict for Estrada.
With an administration known for its anti-corruption drive, the Sandiganbayan plays a vital role.
The court is where the battle against corruption really is.
Since the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel scam cases were lodged before the Sandiganbayan, all eyes have turned to the Sandiganbayan.
And the court now carries the burden of differing public expectations and considering the influence of those involved, the magnitude of cases and the sheer volume of evidence, it also carries the responsibility of making an independent and fair decision that hears all sides and lets no stone unturned or even unearthed.
Will the PDAF cases also end in conviction, or will the accused be cleared? Or yet still, a dismissal?
One thing is certain–the court’s decisions will shape the country’s future and the PDAF trials will define the Sandiganbayan for the next ten years or so.
Cases disposed, cases pending
The Sandiganbayan has five divisions, each with three magistrates sitting as one.
Based on records (as of May 31, 2014), the court has 3,042 cases pending before it. This was before the Ombudsman filed the PDAF cases before the anti-graft court in early June.
Of that figure, 2,862 cases were pending at the beginning of 2014.
From January to May this year, 241 cases were filed, 44 more were revived, for a total workload of 3,147.
Of this, 105 were disposed of–62 were dismissed without trial, 44 ended in acquittal and 25 ended in conviction.
Out of the 241 alleged offenses, 211 were committed in the National Capital Region (NCR) or Metro Manila.
The Sandiganbayan’s Third Division handled the most cases with 108, followed by the Second Division with 97, the First Division with 17, the Fifth Division with 10 and the Fourth Division with nine.
The Third Division also disposed of the most cases with 50, followed by the Second Division with 20, the First Division with 18, the Fifth Division with 15 and the Fourth Division with two.
For May 2014, malversation cases (7 in total) were the most common filed with 58.34 percent distribution followed by graft cases or violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (3 in all) with 25 percent distribution, one special civil action case and one appealed case with an 8.33 percent distribution each.
Most cases disposed of for May 2014 were graft cases (13 in all), followed by perjury (4 in all) and malversation (3).
Since 1979, malversation cases have topped the number of cases filed according to nature of offense with 9,602, followed by graft cases (7,317), falsification cases (5,653) and estafa cases (4,670).
Since 1979, malversation cases comprised the most number disposed of with 10,136, followed by graft cases (6,114), falsification cases (6,096) and estafa cases (4,942).
Plunder cases filed totaled six. Of these, three were disposed of.
The court has been able to issue resolutions to various cases involving large personalities this year.
In May this year, the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division acquitted former Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Hernando Perez of falsifying his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN),
Perez was accused of falsifying his SALN ending December 2001 when he was DOJ secretary for allegedly failing to disclose his and/or his wife Rosario’s bank deposit worth $1.7 million.
“There is merit in the claim of the accused that the prosecution failed to present competent or sufficient evidence against him to sustain the indictment or support a verdict of guilt,” the court said.
Also in May, the Special Third Division dismissed the criminal charges against Roberto Ongpin and several other officials of the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) in connection with its alleged P660-million behest loans, also for lack of sufficient evidence.
In June, the First Division dismissed graft raps against Camilo Sabio, former chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, and former PCGG Commissioners Tereso Javier, Narciso Nario, Nicasio Conti and Ricardo Abcede after the Office of the Ombudsman failed to resolve their pleadings on time.
Granted was Conti’s motion seeking the case’s dismissal, arguing that the Office of the Ombudsman failed to complete the preliminary investigation against him despite the “unexplained long delay of twenty (20) long months” or almost two years.
After the PDAF cases were filed, one case involving a famous personality was dismissed. The Third Division junked the graft cases leveled against former Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson.
The court said, “The period of nine (9) years is an unusually long period of time for the Office of the Ombudsman to study the complaint and commence with the preliminary investigation, even under the circumstances describe by the prosecution.”
Meanwhile, several lawmakers have raised concern over the pace with which cases at the Sandiganbayan are disposed, and introduced bills seeking to speed up disposition of the cases.
One was introduced by Rep. Maximo Rodriguez and Rep. Rufus Rodriguez and is pushing for the addition of two divisions to the anti-graft court. The bill is under committee deliberation.
According to the Rodriguez brothers, the duty of the Sandiganbayan is to go after corrupt officials and noted that cases in the Visayas and Mindanao are increasing.
“Unfortunately, the composition of the Sandiganbayan [at present]cannot handle all the cases that are being filed,” they said in the bill’s explanatory note.
“This is unfortunate, not only because the Sandiganbayan is overworked but also because this means that more and more government officials are being accused of graft and corruption,” the brothers said.
Another bill was introduced by former congressman Roilo Golez that also aimed at increasing the number of the court’s divisions, but this time to 15 and accordingly, tripling the number of justices.
The last two divisions shall hold sessions in Cebu City and Cagayan de Oro City for cases in the Visayas and Mindanao, respectively.
A similar bill, introduced by Rep. Francis Abaya of Cavite and also under committee deliberation, wants to expand the number to 15, citing “heavily clogged dockets.”
In his explanatory note, Golez wrote, “Although the dedication and diligence of our Sandiganbayan justices cannot be doubted, it still takes an average of seven years to try a graft case in the Philippines.”
“Each of the anti-graft court’s five divisions has an overwhelming workload of at least 2,000 cases,” he said.
The bill would also enable one justice to hear a case that involves P5 million or less.
Another bill is aimed at lessening the load of Sandiganbayan by transferring jurisdiction of cases involving positions lower than a regional director to the Regional Trial Courts (RTCs). This is pending at the committee level.
Meanwhile the bill by Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., also under committee deliberation, aims to restructure the court and allow one justice to hear and receive evidence and resolve issues raised in one session in behalf of the other members of the division.
Session could be held and concurrence for the promulgation of a decision can be made by two justices instead of three.
According to Tupas, 60 percent of the cases in the Sandiganbayan are “minor cases.” His proposal is for such cases (those without allegations of bribery or damage or unquantifiable or involve less than a million) to be transferred to the RTCs.
In the explanatory note, he said the road from the filing of information to the promulgation of judgment spans seven years.
“This dismal rate of disposition reflects the heavily clogged dockets of the court, given that the cases filed before it have multiplied over the years,” Tupas added.
When the PDAF cases were filed, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales requested the Supreme Court to form two special divisions, which would exclusively try and conduct continuous trial of the “pork” cases.
The last time the Supreme Court (SC) approved the creation of a Sandiganbayan special division was during the plunder and perjury case of then-President Joseph Estrada.
In a letter to Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Morales noted the “national magnitude of these cases, the complexities of the issues involved, the number of accused and the far-reaching consequences of these cases.”
The “pork” cases involve 54 accused overall.
When the SC gave the go-signal, the cases were eventually raffled off and he case of Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. was assigned to the First Division, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile’s case went to the Third Division and Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada’s case went to the Fifth Division.
The Sandiganbayan asked the SC to throw out the Ombudsman’s plea, with most of the justices of the view “that there is no compelling reason, and/or imperative need, to create a special division, or divisions, to try the criminal cases filed by the Office of the Ombudsman relative to the disbursement and use of the PDAF.”
The justices believed that forming a special division could raise accusations that the court was biased against the accused.
Revilla and Estrada claimed that it is possible that President Benigno Aquino 3rd may try to influence the anti-graft court to ensure their conviction. Estrada said the Sandiganbayant may be pressured and that such pressure does not have to come from the President himself.
Promise of independence
But Sandiganbayan justices have shown and expressed independence.
For example, in a hearing at the court’s Third Division when probable cause was still mostly the issue at hand, the justices assured that they would be fair and will consider everything.
“The case of Enrile is no different from other cases being heard. I will not yield to public opinion, because I do not hear the opinions that are baseless,” Associate Justice Samuel Martires said, as the defense made mention in their oral arguments of the publicity that the case and their clients are subjected to.
Martires assured that the court will personally read all documents no matter how many pages these consist of, the way they have been doing in other cases.
Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, who heads the Third Division, also said during that hearing, “We will not be swayed by public opinion. We will only be guided by what is on record.”
Associate Justice Alex Quiroz also assured that they will read all pleadings carefully.
The justices have also been assisting the cases to expedite proceedings and making sure that proceedings are not getting delayed.
In one hearing in the Estrada case, the defense said they have not received the prosecution’s comment/opposition to Estrada’s motion for bail that was sent by mail.
The prosecution instead provided the defense with it in the hearing, to which the defense said they need not reply.
After that, the Fifth Division told the prosecution to serve comment/opposition through personal service instead to expedite proceedings.
In the Estrada case again, the court directed prosecutors and defense lawyers at least twice in consecutive weeks to sit down and properly mark the documents to be presented during the bail hearings.
The court ordered daily markings of documents to expedite court proceedings.
Fifth Division Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo even remarked when the court had to direct both parties again, “They [documents]should have been marked when you sat down during the stipulation and marking of the documents… so we can dispose with the marking for the convenience of everyone in court.”
Just recently, Third Division Associate Justice Samuel Martires suggested imposing P3,000 to P5,000 fines depending on how many postponements were caused by a party to the case’s preliminary conference.
The court said it would impose fines because the case proceedings are being delayed.
A pre-trial conference aims to consider matters for a fair and expeditious trial.
Such matters include plea bargaining, stipulation of facts, marking for identification of evidence of the parties, waiver of objections to admissibility of evidence and modification of the order of trial if the accused admits the charge but interposes a lawful defense.
The court is also making good use of time.
For example, First Division Chairman Efren dela Cruz, in several hearings, would ask lawyers on the materiality or relevance of their questions, making sure the court’s time is not wasted on irrelevant matters and direct them to go to another point.
The Fifth Division has scheduled two hearings a week for September from the previous once a week in Estrada’s petition for bail.
Trial has not begun on the plunder and graft cases. The court is at the stage of hearing various pleadings such as accused’s petitions for bail that have taken roughly two months now.
Witnesses are continuing to testify before the three divisions handling the PDAF cases for the petitions for bail, which are being scheduled along with various cases involving both known and unknown personalities.
The hearings have given a glimpse of how the Sandiganbayan works and is handling the PDAF cases and other still important cases before it.
After the filing of the charges, media coverage shifted to hearings on several accused’s petitions for bail including that of Revilla and his political staff Richard Cambe, Estrada and alleged pork scam brains Janet Lim-Napoles.
Revilla, Cambe, Estrada and Enrile were all ordered suspended after government lawyers asked for preventive suspension supposedly to keep them from intimidating witnesses and tampering with evidence given their powerful positions.
With the magnitude of the PDAF cases (motions filed every day in these cases alone) and without special divisions, how far proceedings have progressed since the cases were filed is notable.
Whatever the results are, they would be the product of the anti-graft court’s judicious review amid pressure, amid time constraints, amid limited resources.